Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems to be taking one of the last rolls of the dice in what is a high-stakes game of craps. Turkey has already entered what is effectively a pre-election period and the president is looking for a way to blindside the opposition and trigger snap polls – a window that is unlikely to open by way of the economy – while the coalition of six parties seeking to unseat him has yet to announce a candidate.
Erdogan is facing a peculiar situation on many levels. Try as he might, his role in developments is that of observer more than shaper, as he is paying for making some wrong choices in the past. On the domestic front, he knows that the economy cannot rebound, and that neither inflation nor the price of basic commodities can be brought under control. To make matters worse, the situation is taking the heaviest toll on the sections of society that also comprise his voter base. Leading up to the election, the economic situation will only worsen the further away they are – also because of Ukraine – making the atmosphere in which they are conducted that much more fraught and that much more of a challenge for Erdogan. In the meantime, he is under pressure to divest himself of the political, economic and social toll of hosting so many refugees, mainly Syrians, hence his stated decision to return some 1.5 million to Syria.
Nationalism will not be filling Turks’ pockets, of course, but by blaming the economic crisis on the impact of the ongoing war in Ukraine, Erdogan could cast himself as the powerful and effective leader, something that none of his rivals can claim because none have the credentials of a politician who can strengthen Turkey’s international standing. To achieve this, the Turkish president will have to show that he will not bend to the wishes of his allies and, having systematically cultivated anti-Western public sentiment, will seek to tap into the pool of nationalist voters. His stance towards the Russian invasion of Ukraine, allows him to argue that he is pursuing an independent policy and has strengthened the country so much that it is no longer obliged to align itself with the West, and especially not the United States.
On the international stage, Erdogan has chosen to play the game on many different fronts at the same time, both so he has the ability at the negotiating table to use different tools with different interlocutors, and also to ensure that at the end of the day he will always be able to show some additional gain that he can present to the domestic audience as yet another success. In reality, however, he is at a disadvantage in most cases and the biggest gamble he needs to pay off seems to be leaving the Americans – his chief interlocutor – largely unmoved. It actually appears as if the Americans are trying to show their disdain or at least indifference to Erdogan’s transactional style of politics. Washington’s apparent apathy to Ankara’s obstinate refusal to agree to Finland and Sweden’s NATO accession is a typical example. This is not to say that Turkey has ceased being key to American interests, a “geopolitical linchpin” in a critical regional locked in broader turbulence, but as important as quid pro quo may be in international relations, trust is equally if not more important – and this is something the Turkish president has lost.
Erdogan’s stance towards the Russian invasion of Ukraine allows him to argue that he is pursuing an independent policy and has strengthened the country so much that it is no longer obliged to align itself with the West
When your policy is almost always an exercise in give-and-take, without principles or morals, or at least a framework of rules and a relatively predictable attitude, a policy of constant tactical maneuvers covering up the absence of an overarching strategy, you put yourself in a position where the benefits of said policy will almost inevitably be fleeting, while the damage can be lasting. This is, after all, why Erdogan – and especially since Joe Biden was elected president of the United States – has shown such adaptability in changing course on confrontational policies he pursued in previous years. And now he has a daily struggle on his hands just to ensure that the Americans and the Europeans will tolerate his strategic aspirations, which he tries to do by invoking his country’s size and strategic value. Nevertheless, he has not managed to shift the balance so far, as he faces the fallout from mistakes like the purchase of the S-400 missile defense system from Russia, a decision that has painted him into a corner even if he took the opportunity to blame the Greek prime minister for the problems Turkey is facing with regard to the upgrade and purchase of F-16 fighter jets.
All of the above does not mean that Turkey has not scored some successes or that it is isolated or that it has stopped looking for ways to strengthen its importance – even exploring ways to play a role in unblocking Ukrainian wheat exports. In the meantime, it has announced a fresh intervention in Syria, which Washington has already condemned in advance. What Ankara is trying to do is force situations via blackmail. But what is most alarming for Greece is that it has managed to dispel the pressure being exerted on peripheral issues, thus leaving the core of its strategic aspirations untouched and allowing it to express its revisionist ambitions unfettered. This is the exact opposite of what Greece seeks to accomplish – with only limited success so far – which is increasing the cost to Turkey of every action it takes that challenges Greek sovereignty.
Constantinos Filis is the director of the Institute of Global Affairs and associate professor at the American College of Greece. His latest book, “Assertive Patriotism,” has been published in Greek by Papadopoulos.